San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Big Hopes For Small Technology, At New Nanotechnology Lab

JET-PROPELLED shoes, dust-size robots,noncrushable metals…No, William Shatner isn’t taking a breakfrom spoken word to hang with the Spy Kids.This is reality and it is coming to a Costa Ricanlaboratory near you.Beginning next month, the National Center forHigh Technology (CENAT) will inaugurate CentralAmerica’s first nanotechnology laboratory, andembark on a voyage that may put biotechnologydebates on genetically modified organisms(GMOs) to shame.Nanotechnology is the manipulation of atoms tomodify nearly every product known to humans – foodand beyond – at a science fiction-like magnitude,researcher Silvia Ribeiro said at last week’s Threats toBiological and Cultural Diversity Conference at the Universidad Nacional (UNA) in Heredia.Ribeiro works with the CanadianbasedAction Group on Erosion,Technology and Concentration (ETCGroup), which has for more than two yearswarned that lack of government regulationworldwide could allow such technology tospiral out of control with monumentalimpacts.ALLAN Campos, administrator ofCENAT’s new National Laboratory ofNanotechnology, Microsensors andAdvanced Materials, isn’t so pessimistic.“It’s an absolute wonder. The applicationsare infinite,” he said.Nanotechnology is the emerging scienceof manufacturing materials on a scalesmaller than nanometers – one billionth ofone meter, or one-millionth the size of apinhead.When reduced to the nano-scale, ordinarymaterials like carbon can exhibitvarying traits with respect to strength,chemical reactivity, melting point andcolor, unlike those possessed on a largerscale. The manipulation at this level, therefore,allows for the mixing of living andnon-living materials in new and innovativeways.Both proponents and critics agreenanotechnology could revolutionize areassuch as health care, microelectronics, militarydefense and manufacturing in general.It has already been used to make everydayitems such as scratch-resistant sunglassesand graffiti-proof walls. and is havinglarge impacts on information and energystorage. Nanochips have been producedinstead of microchips since the millennium.MUCH of the nanotechnology that hasemerged in the commercial arena is basedon carbon nanotubes. These will be thefocus of Costa Rica’s new laboratory.Carbon nanotubes are made of largemolecules of carbon that are 100 timesstronger than high-strength steel and aboutone-sixth the density. They conduct heatand electricity extremely well. Beyondstructural reinforcement, carbon nanotubesare already being used in lithium-ion batteriesand flat television screens.While nanotechnology already hassome applications, the possibilities arewhat have scientists most excited, Campossaid.Anticipated applications include: medical“nanobots” – miniscule robots – ableto enter the body to destroy cancer cells orconstruct nerve tissue and end paralysis;military shoes with built-in power packsallowing soldiers to jump over 20-footwalls; and nanobots able to manipulate theatoms of an oil spill, rendering it harmless,according to could alsogreatly increase hydrogen-fuel storage,increasing the efficiency of fuel-cell cars.Thailand is attempting to circumventthe GM controversy by creating anAtomically Modified Organism (AMO)with its famous jasmine rice. The rice – cutwith a nano-sized hole that is inserted witha nitrogen atom to rearrange DNA – wouldrequire less light to grow year round.Nanotechnology could also bring aboutfoods that use proteins to deliver drugs totargeted areas of the body; food packagingthat changes color to warn consumerswhen the food is spoiling; and beveragesable to change flavor based on consumertastes.Critics argue that such nano-particlescould be toxic, and some studies indicatesuch.THE ETC Group concedes that governmentson both sides of the Atlantic arefinally acknowledging that engineerednanoparticles may require regulation.However, governments are already in aposition of catch-up and clean-up, Ribeirosaid.In an effort to learn a lesson from therapid, unregulated dispersion of GMOtechnology, the ETC Group is calling for amoratorium on nanotechnology.Scientists and society must togetherengage in a discussion about the socio-economic,health and environmental implicationsof this emerging technology, accordingto Ribeiro.But scientists argue nanotechnology isjust the expansion of already existing scienceslike physics, chemistry and engineering.According to Campos, doubters arejust afraid of the unknown.“Whenever there is new technology,people fear it,” he said. “Yes, the humanbeing is capable of good, and bad. But in(nanotechnology) we are working towardthe development of Costa Rica.”BECAUSE the new laboratory will befunded by individual research projects,requested by the University of Costa Ricaand other organizations, it will be regulatedby the requesting entities. It also falls underregulation of the National Council ofUniversity Rectors, Campos said.Startup costs for the laboratory camefrom the Costa Rica-United StatesFoundation for Cooperation (CRUSA),which donated ¢3.7 million ($8,400).Funding to construct the laboratory camefrom the Ministry of Science andTechnology at a cost of ¢50 million($114,000). It is outfitted with basic materialsbut still in need of equipment,Campos said.While the laboratory is expected to beself sufficient through outside-fundedresearch projects, Campos and lab headJorge Díaz are also looking for some maintenancesupport from foundations andgrants.The lab has also received the support ofthe U.S. National Aeronautics and SpaceAdministration (NASA) in the form ofinformation, Campos said.THE U.S. National Science Foundationexpects the nanotechnology industryto grow to $1 trillion by 2015. U.S.research alone in 2003 was estimated at$2.1 billion.Among the companies researchingnanoparticle use are Dupont, Hewlett-Packard, Toyota, Monsanto, ConAgra,General Mills, Sara Lee, Kraft Foods,PepsiCo, Nestlé and Campbell Soup,according to various online sources.

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